The War Against Dementia

Are We Battle Weary Yet?

Heather Patricia Lane; SueAnne McLachlan; Jennifer Philip

Disclosures

Age Ageing. 2013;42(3):281-283. 

In This Article

Abstract and Introduction

Abstract

Recently, the use of military metaphors when discussing dementia and in particular Alzheimer's disease has increased, both in medical literature and mainstream media. While military metaphors are a recent adoption when used to describe dementia, in oncology there has been longstanding debate about the usefulness of such metaphors. This article reviews the history of military metaphors in medicine, literature discussing their use, and considers their use in describing dementia. While military metaphors are widely used in medicine, consideration should be taken in their use as they have the potential to influence the way we and our patients conceptualise and experience illness and treatment.

Introduction

Recently, the use of military metaphors when discussing dementia and in particular Alzheimer's disease has increased, both in medical literature and mainstream media. Titles including 'Harnessing the immune system to battle Alzheimer's disease',[1] 'Developing the framework for the international battle against Alzheimer's disease'[2] and 'Dementia in Lewy body syndromes: A battle between hearts and minds'[3] are found in medical journals.

Internationally, headlines reported President Obama declaring 'War on Alzheimer's disease' early in 2012, after the working group for the National Alzheimer's Plan Act announced the goal of finding a cure for Alzheimer's disease by 2025,[4] while the United Kingdom's Alzheimer's Society website carries the banner: 'Alzheimer's Society: leading the fight against Alzheimer's disease'.[5] Meanwhile, the 'Fight Dementia' campaign was launched in 2011 by Alzheimer's Australia, aiming to make dementia a national health priority.[6]

While military metaphors are a recent adoption when used to describe dementia and Alzheimer's disease, in oncology there has been debate about the usefulness of these metaphors dating back to Susan Sontag's 1978 book 'Illness as Metaphor',[7] debate which is relevant to other areas of medicine including dementia care. This article reviews the history of military metaphors in medicine, literature discussing their use, and considers their use in describing dementia.

Is discussion of metaphor of any importance to the medial field? Lakoff and Johnson assert that metaphors represent more than just the way a subject is described, also reflecting conceptualisation and experience of the world, and therefore having the potential to affect thoughts and actions.[8]

Military metaphors are widely used when describing health status and illness, and the mainstream media are frequently accused of perpetuating them. Military metaphors are certainly prevalent in newspaper headlines, in reference to a broad range of medical conditions including heart disease, obesity, multiple sclerosis, depression and allergies. Pharmaceutical companies use military metaphors and imagery in advertisements. An advertisement for the chemotherapy agent docetaxel features 'Liberty Leading the People', the 1830 Eugene Delacroix painting with a woman, 'Liberty', leading an army over the bodies of those fallen in battle.[9]

However, these metaphors are not exclusively the domain of the popular and commercial press. In the medical literature, military metaphors are used in reference to an extensive range of medical conditions, including: cardiovascular disease—'The reperfusion wars';[10] medical errors—'The war against error'[11] and psychological disorders—'Are we winning the war against posttraumatic stress disorder?'.[12]

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